This is Exile: Stories of Syrian Refugee Children

April 6, 2016
This is Exile by Mani Benchelah - Frontline Club - report by Alex Glynn

The civil war in Syria is never far from our front pages and minds, particularly with the continual images and stories of refugees dominating the media and political agenda. It is a story we all think we are familiar with. 

But what is it like to grow up in exile? How do the Syrian children see their situation, and how has it affected them?

Mani Benchelah’s new hour-long documentary This is Exile, realised with the support of Save the Children UK, takes a unique view – the life of a Syrian refugee, told entirely from a child’s perspective.

The Frontline Club held a special screening of the film on Monday 4 April, which was followed by a Q&A with Benchelah, Save the Children’s Jess Crombie, filmmaker Julia Kirby-Smith and Syrian humanitarian aid worker Ahmer.

“I was reporting on the situation in Syria for Channel 4 News and I found that children were approaching me and wanted to express what they are experiencing,” said Benchelah, who started filming for the documentary in 2014. “Their family members had been affected, killed or maimed and their schoolmates had also been killed. So the idea of making a film about Syrian refugees, children specifically, was discussed with Save the Children.”

With children amounting to half of the refugee population in Lebanon, the film follows a few living in Lebanon over the course of two years. They talk about what it is like to be a refugee, and what they think of their own futures and that of their home country.

“It’s not easy to interview children who have been through trauma, or have experienced what is war,” said Benchelah, who was a primary school teacher before he became a documentary filmmaker. “There is a question among the journalist community whether it is ethical to interview children, particularly in situations of trauma… Sometimes I had to decide not to interview the children.”

Ahmed, who is Syrian and has worked with children in Syria for UNICEF, described how the film reflected the reality on the ground. “The film tries to show the reality of what people, especially children, are going through. Nearly three million children are out of school.

“Thousands of children have been born stateless because they don’t have papers – they are going to school and they don’t speak the language. But the good thing about children is they adapt.”

As Save the Children’s Director of Creative, Jess Crombie commissioned the film and explained to the audience why they wanted to do something a little more innovative: “This was the first full length doc we’ve ever made; we usually make short films.

“We wanted to make it because at the time when we commissioned it in 2013, public engagement had dropped and we wanted to bring the situation to people’s attention and give them a different perspective. We wanted to… give a truth to the situation, so it wouldn’t be so overtly political. What a child will give you is a perspective that it not mired in their own political views, but about the reality of what they are experiencing.”

Filmmaker Julia Kirby-Smith pointed out that the children also shine a light on the wider context. “It’s interesting that although children can speak a bit more openly than the adults can, at the same time you can see they are a little filter for what their parents and adults are all saying to them.”

Benchelah elaborated on this point, and told the audience about one child he captured on film who seemed to have strong pro-Assad views: “It’s interesting because although the parents know about what the regime is doing, and about the atrocities, they teach the younger kids to be really pro-regime.

“They want to come back to Syria, but they are afraid that if they are saying anything wrong against the regime to their children, they are afraid that when they grow older, they will become in opposition to the regime – they don’t want that.”

Watch the trailer for the film here.